There’s little time to settle in, the 2019 St. Thomas budget looms ahead for new city council


city_scope_logo-cmykIn past years, this corner closed out the calendar with a review of the previous 12 months through memorable quotes, often humorous and even insightful at times.
This time around, with a newly installed council – which, after just a pair of meetings is proving more dynamic than the previous edition – we will peer ahead to the coming year and the corporate business needing attention in fairly short order.
First on the agenda – with an initial run-through beginning 5 p.m. Jan. 7 – is the city’s 2019 budget.
As outlined during the Dec. 17 reference committee meeting, the goal is to hold the municipal property tax levy to an increase of between 1.8 and 2 per cent.
The capital budget target for 2019 is $4,045,000, up from $3.4 million in 2018. However, keep in mind council will have to wade through tens of millions of dollars in requests.

It all comes down to priorities. The 2018 capital budget included detailed project sheets totalling almost $35 million in proposed expenditures.
Undertakings for 2019 that will impact the capital budget include an entire year of expanded parallel transit service and costs associated with 1Password Park, the northside recreation complex to open next summer.
2019 city counciljpgOther projects under consideration but not included in the draft 2019 budget are a satellite branch of the public library to be housed at Memorial Arena and a new hangar at St. Thomas Municipal Airport.
The city will also increase the funds available for the Community Improvement Program grants by $200,000.
Still not resolved after several years of sometimes heated debate is the allocation of community grants.
The general benchmark has been one-half per cent of the general tax levy figure is set aside for awarding grants to community and social service groups.
Last year, almost $334,000 was doled out, well above that ballpark figure. That total does not include funding already approved as the city’s commitment to the expansion of St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital.
If council holds to that grant funding guideline, approximately $261,000 would be available for distribution in the community.
With no grant committee in place this year to make recommendations to council, let’s see how our elected officials tackle this thorny issue, especially when dealing with expected requests from the Talbot Teen Centre, the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre and St. Thomas Cemetery Company.
In addition to budget deliberations on Jan. 7, council will hold budget talks again beginning at 5 p.m. Jan. 10, with approval of the 2019 budget expected at the Jan. 21 council meeting.

FOR THE AGENDA

With the operating and capital budgets for the new year established by the middle of January, what will the road map for city council look like in the first quarter of 2019?
As proposed by city manager Wendell Graves, seven key areas require council’s attention and will be the focus of reference committee meetings in the early going.
The city’s transit system has been under the microscope for some time and was the subject of much derision during the run-up to the fall municipal vote.
At one public meeting, then mayoral candidate Joe Preston quipped he tried to hop a bus but it was after 6:30 in the evening.
“We have a transit system we can’t count on,” Preston added. “The stores are open to 9 p.m. but the buses stop at 6:30 p.m.”
He concluded, the system “is beyond broken.” Read more about that meeting here.
Expect a review of transit operations and routes to be an early agenda item.
While winter has treated us kindly up to this point, it is unlikely the plows, salters and sanders will remain dormant for long.
And winter road/sidewalk operations are the subject of criticism – perhaps unfairly at times – on what seems like an annual basis.
We may escape winter’s extreme wrath this year, however the manner in which city crews attack the snow and ice will be a topic of discussion in short order.
Phase 1 of the social services and housing campus is taking shape at 230 Talbot Street and council will soon be tasked with consideration of the design and costs associated with Phase 2, which will incorporate the childcare centre and upper level apartments.
230 TalbotThe projected cost of the second phase is just over $7 million, although there will be minimal to no impact on ratepayers as the childcare portion of the facility will be financed by the province and the apartments are being funded through the sale of some of the city’s existing housing stock. More details here.
Addressing the city’s preparedness for residential and commercial/industrial growth over the next 20 years has been an ongoing discussion and the new council will be regularly updated on land use and expansion.
Last week, the city announced the purchase of just over 54 acres of land for expansion of the Highbury Industrial Park.
And, what’s that old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie. Well, the future of the city’s animal shelter has languished in limbo for a considerable time and at some point council will have to re-visit the issue.
In August of 2017, council of the day put long-overdue renovations at the animal shelter on hold because the lowest tender bid came in $38,000 over the $260,000 budget.
How long can this council let those sleeping dogs lie dormant? Read more about the shelter here.
Acccording to the city manager, the smoking bylaw is undergoing a re-write and is being vetted by legal counsel. Expect this to come before council for comment and approval in the not-too-distant future. How will it deal with vaping and cannabis use?
And, Graves has also advised council the city’s development charges bylaw is being examined, so what changes, if any, are being proposed?
At the final reference committee meeting of the year on Dec. 19, several members of council put forth suggestions of their own.
Coun. Steve Peters would like a review of park space and discussion on what lies ahead for the site of the former Northside Arena, decommissioned in 2005. Remember the proposed park in honour of former mayor Joanne Brooks? 
Coun. Linda Stevenson wants to know what’s up with the now-vacant Wellington Block, the former Wellington Street Public School. And, can more revenue be generated out at the airport.
You have to love this one. Coun. Joan Rymal would like a status report on the utility merger between St. Thomas Energy and Entegrus.
Stay with it Joan, there’s plenty of meat on that bone.

WAIT, THERE’S MORE

If all of that isn’t enough, council has until mid-January to decide on whether to opt in to allow cannabis retail outlets in the city.
At the Dec. 17 council meeting, members appeared to favour moving forward although formal discussion was limited.
Some of the issues raised by councillors included what is the province’s definition of a school and does it include daycare centres.
If the city is chosen to host a retail outlet, is there a possibility more than one would be permitted to operate?
Then there is this puzzling possibility. If no outlet can be built within 500 feet of a school, is that a two-way street?
That is, if such a retail outlet is established in St. Thomas, does that mean any new school/daycare centre would be subject to that same distance restriction?
The city manager advised council that, yes, the restriction does work both ways.
Something to consider when it comes time to vote on the cannabis retail outlets.

Related post:

Covering the bases so Walnut Manor residents don’t fall through the cracks . . . again

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